Thank you to these very special people!
Mid-November last year marked a crucial point in my life. I had just completed my “Outsider” project (exhibit in July) and was ready to start a new personal project. Having regularly done assignments for Special Olympics Maryland (SOMD) I wanted to create a portrait series of Special Olympians reflecting their beauty and unique personalities. I did not want to focus on disabilities. With the help of SOMD, who sent out a social media and email newsblast about the portrait sessions, I soon received responses and started setting up appointments. I asked each person to bring a few favorite outfits as I wanted to portray them in a way they would feel beautiful. It didn’t necessarily have to be athletic portraits.
A little nervous and self-conscious, I opened the door for my first appointment that day in mid-November. A beautiful young woman, smiling from ear to ear, and her mother entered and were excited about a photo session. We talked a bit, laughed a bit, and photographed a lot! It’s possible the mother sensed that I was worried about saying or doing the wrong thing because in a very gentle way she guided the conversation and helped me understand her daughter. It was very uplifting and I don’t know who had a better time, they or me! That same day three more sessions followed. And 24 more in the next weeks. The ages ranged from 3 to 54.
Every session was different. Some people were a little shy, most of them were not! Some were able to verbalize well and some didn’t verbalize but were able to communicate in other ways. Some people wanted to move around, dance or jump, and some stood still or lay down on the big red beanbag. Some wanted to have music (sometimes we played the same song several times, especially Abba’s “Dancing Queen”) and some didn’t. Some only wanted to stay a little while and some didn’t want to leave (I didn’t want them to leave either!). Parents, caregivers and sometimes siblings stood by and offered support. They were really the biggest cheerleaders!
These sessions became the highlight of my day! And I was sorry if someone cancelled.
Each and every person I met, taught me something new. They taught me ways to communicate and interact. They explained about hurdles, big and small, and how they were overcome. They talked about challenges, major and minor, and how they were dealt with. They showed pride in accomplishments, big and small. They taught me about persistence and discipline. They taught me to enjoy and have fun. They also taught me that happiness and joy can exist even under difficult circumstances. I learned about self-sacrifice and giving. And about doing one’s best without making it about winning. I learned about supporting each other and having each other's back. And they showed me the meaning of unconditional love!
It was a life-changing experience for me. My life has been one with personal struggles, doubts, lack of self-esteem and self-love. There’s been the fear of rejection. And there’s always been that nagging question: “who am I?” This has been so as a child, student, mother, lawyer and photographer. Although objectively speaking there were some accomplishments, these never really gave me a sense of peace and true happiness.
The photo sessions and meeting so many truly inspiring people made me realize that my life shouldn’t be about a search to the answer of the egocentric question: Who am I? It shouldn’t be about me! It should be about how I can, by simply being me, be good and do good. About doing my best. About giving and empathy. About enjoying the small things. And about sacrifice and working hard.
So I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to everybody involved with this project. Aside from the fact that it was such a pleasure meeting you and working with you, you showed me the way!
Here are a few photos from the portrait sessions. The entire series is here https://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/Special-People/
This blog only contains a small selection of the series. The entire series is here https://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/Special-People/